Mixed Bag #4: Audrey Clare Farley on Race Science and Christianity
“Mixed Bag” is a series on Psychiatry at the Margins where I ask an expert to select 5 items to explore a particular topic: a book, a concept, a person, an article, and a surprise item (at the expert’s discretion). For each item they have to explain why they selected it and what it signifies. — Awais Aftab
Audrey Clare Farley, PhD is a scholar of American literature and culture with special interests in race, science, and religion. She earned a PhD in English from University of Maryland, College Park, and now teaches part-time in the history department at Mount St. Mary’s University. She is the author of The Unfit Heiress: The Tragic Life and Scandalous Sterilization of Ann Cooper Hewitt (2021) and the forthcoming Girls and Their Monsters: The Genain Quadruplets and the Making of Madness in America. Her essays have appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The New Republic, and many other outlets. Find her on Twitter: @AudreyCFarley.
Farley: Thank you for the chance to reflect on Race Science and Christianity. I understand race science as the study of race as a biological, rather than social, construct. This study has long fueled beliefs that human beings can be classified into species, with some having desirable traits and others, undesirable ones. Race science inspired the eugenics movement, which was the subject of my first book, The Unfit Heiress. It is a secular discipline, but one that builds upon Christian thinking about Jewish and Black bodies—and that Christians, in turn, have tried to baptize. I am fascinated by the interplay of race science and Christianity because it exposes the “white lie” that haunts each: the idea that some can transcend culture to become the singular owners of truth.
Book – Terence Keel’s Divine Variations: How Christian Thought Became Racial Science
Farley: I came across this title while writing The Unfit Heiress, and it really floored me. Keel studied theology before becoming Associate Professor in UCLA’s Institute for Society and Genetics, and the Department African American Studies. He contests the idea that science and religion have been at loggerheads since the Enlightenment by examining the ways that biology, genetics, medicine, and other fields promote Western Christian views of human origins and racial difference. To be clear, he does not merely argue that these fields are influenced by Christian intellectual history, but rather that they engage in a form of “secular theology.”
Take the eighteenth-century ethnologist Johann F. Blumenbach, who divided the human species into five races. Keel shows how Blumenbach’s taxonomy advanced Christian ideas about non-Christian others, which Blumenbach had encountered in the writings of anti-Semites like the Protestant reformer Martin Luther. The nineteenth-century physician and epidemiologist Josiah Nott promoted a theory of polygenesis (multiple human origins) that enshrined Christian ideas of the supernatural origins of life, the stable heredity of racial traits, and the inherent order of nature, even as it departed from other orthodoxy. In the modern day, genomic studies like the Neanderthal Genome Project have buttressed ideas of distinct continental groups—otherwise known as biblical accounts of Noah and his three sons. Divine Variations imagines science as a “mongrel epistemology,” which constantly draws upon the very thing it purports to supplant and consequently suffers from the same affliction as Christianity: origins anxiety.
Concept – Psychoheresy
Farley: “Psychoheresy” is a term popularized by Martin and Deidre Bobgan, referring to the integration of psychology and Christianity. Think Christian mental health counseling or popular ministries like evangelical psychologist James Dobson’s Focus on the Family. According to the Bobgans and their many followers, psychology is heretical and can never mix with Christianity for one simple reason: It suggests that people can save themselves when only Jesus saves.
The Bobgans are Keel’s purists in reverse. If the scientists who populate Divine Variations claim an ontological break with religion, they idealize a Christianity that stands over and above science—specifically the “Jewish science” of psychoanalysis. Drawing on the writings of Thomas Szasz, they portray Sigmund Freud as a Christ-hater whose entire project was to humiliate and disempower believers. (Freud surely loathed Christianity, but his relationship to it was more complicated than Szasz suggests.) The Bobgans view figures like Dobson as Trojan horses, who are secularizing/Judaizing Christianity from within, if unwittingly.
Psychoheresy is deeply problematic, but I find it fascinating and useful. The Bobgans’ work makes much more visible the Christian underpinnings of antipsychiatry, from Szasz to many of today’s Twitter critics. It also takes seriously the secular influences upon figures like Dobson, who’ve worked hard to sell their work as biblical. More on this guy…
Person – James Dobson
Farley: I first encountered Dobson in childhood. Though my family was Catholic, his books on child rearing and marriage were always around the house. In these books and on his radio program, Dobson pushed corporal punishment as a way to combat what he took to be the cultural chaos begun with the feminist and anti-war movements. He also urged female submission and strict sex-gender norms. By claiming a scriptural basis for his program, he gained the trust of the church-going masses. But as the Bobgans note, Dobson is deeply indebted to Freud, even naming his dog after him (which he curiously described beating in one book). He has also grifted secular eugenics.
Prior to founding Focus on the Family in 1977, Dobson worked for an atheist named Paul Popenoe at the American Institute of Family Relations (AIFR) in Los Angeles. In the early twentieth century, Popenoe had advocated for the segregation and forced sterilization of “waste humanity,” catching the attention of the Third Reich. When public support for forced sterilization began to wane, he turned to the other side of the eugenics coin: getting able-bodied, middle-class, white women to reproduce. At AIFR, he counseled white couples on ways to preserve marital harmony, and trained clergy, psychologists, and youth group leaders in marriage counseling. Dobson learned the ropes here, publishing articles on AIFR’s behalf and arranging for Popenoe to write the forward to his first book. Over time, he began to cover his tracks—or so it seems. There’s no mention of Popenoe or AIFR in Dale Buss’s authorized biography of Dobson, Family Man, though one can see the specter of eugenics in Dobson’s “family values,” as well as his rants about the “violent,” “illiterate” immigrants who are trying to “bankrupt” our great nation. More here.
Article – Hannah Zeavin’s “Parasitic Whiteness On and Off the Couch” (n+1)
Farley: This article came across my feed at just the right moment. I’d been struggling to process research on the Genain quadruplets, who were the JonBenéts of the 1930s. Born in Michigan, the identical sisters danced and sang about Christopher Columbus, sometimes opening for minstrel performers. Much like in the Jim Crow South (or antisemitic Europe, before that), the public totally sentimentalized helplessness, projecting onto cute little girls deep-seated fantasies of white innocence and dark-skinned barbarity. The quads’ father, a German immigrant, was enamored with Hitler and obsessed with their sexual purity. He forbade them from leaving the house and would grope them, claiming to be gauging how they’d react on dates when older.
When the sisters developed psychosis and were studied, along with their parents, by NIMH in the 1950s, the researchers utterly ignored race and framed their struggles in developmental terms. Though the quads’ father was spewing conspiracies about the Jewish psychiatrists—for instance, that one was having sex with his wife—they chalked his issues up to “poor ego boundaries” and such. As it was the era of the schizophrenogenic mother theory, they also placed a lot of blame on his mother—and the quads’ mother, when it came to their madness.
I was shocked that researchers, some Jewish, could cover for a literal Nazi. Zeavin’s piece offered needed historical context, showing how a doctrine of neutrality pervaded after WWII. Psychoanalysts were not to bring politics or personal trauma into the room, but rather to be disembodied listeners. Like Freud before them, they thought this was necessary for psychoanalysis to be a science. In reality, neutrality made psychoanalysis white. Many psychoanalysts today are unable or unwilling to consider race as a “central node of the psyche”—a point that Zeavin makes by chronicling the backlash that her stepfather Donald Moss faced after identifying “whiteness” as a malignant condition.
In reality, neutrality made psychoanalysis white. Many psychoanalysts today are unable or unwilling to consider race as a “central node of the psyche”…
This partly explains why so many contemporary critics of biological psychiatry further dislodge the Genain quads from their racial milieu, even as they claim to be attending to the social. If these critics mention Nazism at all, it is only to disparage the lead researcher David Rosenthal for positing a genetic basis of schizophrenia. There is absolutely no discussion of the ways that the sisters were made to shoulder antisemitism and anti-Black racism.
Surprise Item – Spiritual Eugenics
Farley: I spent my first ten years in a Baltimore-based covenant community called the Lamb of God. Like Amy Coney Barrett’s People of Praise in South Bend, Indiana, this community was born of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal that swept the nation in the late ‘60s. Charismatics believe they have the “charisms” or gifts of the holy spirit, including tongue-speaking, prophecy, and laying of hands (healing). After initially attracting some social justice advocates, covenant communities quickly became regressive, with members fearing the “four horsemen” of Islam, Marxism, feminism, and secular humanism.
By the ‘90s, covenant communities were mostly disbanded, as the media had reported on sexual abuse and cult-like practices. But the spiritual warfare tactics survived and are now proliferating on the Christian right. Priests are exorcising bad spirits following Black Lives Matters protests; Trump ally Roger Stone claims there’s a “demon portal” over the Biden White House; and lay people are promoting spiritual mapping, whereby clergy mark “demonic hotspots”—presumably Democrat-run cities.
Spiritual warfare is blurring denominational lines and giving religious conservatives a shared vernacular. But it is also overtly re-enchanting the material world. Everyone and everything is becoming animated, either by the holy spirit or a satanic one. What’s frightening about this is the way it reconceives danger. In the words of journalist Katherine Stewart, the battle must be fought “not in the individual conscience but on the public stage”—and “the psychological needs of spiritual warriors are not going to be satisfied with a few concessions on abortion policy or same-sex marriage.”
I believe these times call for greater dialogue between the “psy” professions and religion scholars.
I believe these times call for greater dialogue between the “psy” professions and religion scholars. On my reading list: Pamela Cooper-White’s The Psychology of Christian Nationalism. I can’t say enough about the work of scholars like Sara Moslener, Brad Onishi, and Jemar Tisby, and psychotherapist Laura Anderson, who is developing research on religious trauma. I’m also very excited about the breadth of Psychiatry at the Margins, and I again thank Awais for the opportunity to share these resources and my own work.
See previous posts in the “Mixed Bag” series
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So wonderful! This is a neglected story and provides an important lens to understand the intellectual and spiritual framework of the antipsychiatry movement. I look forward to reading her book about the Genain quadruplets. Thanks.